The Oakland Athletics entered this calendar week with something they hadn’t faced all season – a difficult calendar week.
They confronted seven games at home against the second and third-best teams by record in the American League, after being swept in Toronto by the fourth-best team. If there was a dodgier science experiment to determine who and what this team is, it would have to be in October with Justin Verlander as the other team’s starting pitcher.
But the A’s not only endured, they thrived, splitting with Detroit and sweeping the Los Angeles Angels. All the fresh takes about the A’s being the greatest show on earth everyone is pretending not to know about had been recast without having to change much more than a few numbers.
One nagging issue remained, though, as they boarded their flight for New York and the beginning of a nine-game grinder with the Yankees, Orioles and Angels: Whether the players are so beloved amidst their own fan base that they are able to turn around the public mood on reliever Jim Johnson.
Johnson, one of only two A's who has ever been in an All-Star Game, has been one of the few downers in Oakland this season, where his home ERA is seven times as high as it is on the road – 14.04 vs. 1.98. And even if you hate the ERA statistic, seven times as bad is a mackerel in the face.
The fans in Oakland have taken an almost instant dislike to him since he got kicked around in the season opener to Cleveland, and to their credit his teammates have rallied around him with an unusual fervor, essentially chastising the otherwise slavish customer base for turning on one of their own.
The last episode of this was Thursday, when the former Baltimore Oriole closer gave up two runs in the seventh inning of a 5-4 loss to the Tigers and was – yes – booed like he’d sold the secret rocket fuel formula to Canada. His teammates leaped into action, telling reporters among other things that the reaction was “extremely distasteful.”
New closer Sean Doolittle told CSNBayArea’s Joe Stiglich, “We all take notice of it. One guy was giving him the double-barreled middle finger above the dugout after one of his outings. That’s disgusting. That’s pretty ridiculous that he has to deal with that.”
Third baseman Josh Donaldson, the team’s face, told Jane Lee of MLB.com, “It makes me think different about our fans. There was a time when we were all one unit, fed off each other, which made it special . . . I think it got out of hand early, and now it's almost like it's just the cool thing to do. It's awkward.”
Shortstop Jed Lowrie said, “They're people paying to watch a game, but you would also hope they would be supportive when guys are going through a rough time.”
Since that game, Johnson has not pitched, and has only been up in the bullpen once, very briefly, Friday night in Oakland’s 9-5 win over the Angels. Thus, we have not gotten to learn whether his teammate/defenders have gotten their message across to a fan base known largely for defending the underdog at its underdoggiest.
Manager Bob Melvin will surely employ Johnson on the road trip, because among other things, Johnson still has been far better on the road, and the A’s aren’t going anywhere without a sense of all-hands-on-deck.
So the question of how much throw-weight Donaldson et al. have with the fans when it comes to Johnson remains an open one until the A’s return home in 10 days. It is an interesting one because it challenges a fan base that is just now getting used to good things being the norm to reach down and lift a player who been a disappointment. This is not, for the most part, what fans do in any market for someone struggling against the tide, and Johnson has the added burdens of being from another market (Baltimore) and making a lot of money ($10 million this year, putting him just behind Yoenis Cespedes and well ahead of Coco Crisp and Scott Kazmir, who is the other former All-Star from his Tampa Bay days).
In short, his track record in Oakland started that Monday night against Cleveland, and it hasn’t gotten better. Thus, the fans have to work against type and cheer one of theirs only because he is one of theirs and because they were asked to by more popular players.
Does this change? The law of big numbers says Johnson should get better simply by virtue of pitching when asked. He’s a major league pitcher with a creditable history.
But does this fan base decide that faith and hope are good enough to spawn charity in this double-bird world? They’re entitled to boo, and there is no evidence that they’ve done anything more than that, so it’s not like their behavior is outside the pale. Indeed, in many markets, Johnson would be getting it far worse, including the one from which he just came. Double-birding is a testimonial in some cities.
Presumably we’ll find out in 12 days when the Yankees come to Oakland. Maybe Johnson will have churned out a couple of helpful outings . . . maybe the A’s will still be on their current roll . . . maybe the large number of Yankee fans at the ballpark will be too busy booing their own players to pay much notice of one of the other team’s.
And maybe Josh Donaldson and his mates have reached that point in Oakland where they get what they want from the fans just by asking for it. Now wouldn’t that be a remarkable advancement in the recasting of this franchise?